When I first moved to Brooklyn I pinned a zine by Emma Kohlmann next to the 18th birthday cards my parents gave me before I left. It hung beside my bed for months and in June, when my friend Lena moved in, she hung her own print by Emma above her bed as well. Lena brought another Emma piece for our fridge too. I follow Emma on Instagram and late last summer, seeing that she was temporarily setting up shop a few neighborhoods away, I sent her an email asking for an interview. I considered it a shot in the dark and was filled with excitement when she replied, inviting me to her open studio in Bed-Stuy. There her pieces lined the walls from floor to ceiling, one large one above the mantelpiece and her printed silk scarf catching light in the window. Small engraved ceramic pieces hung like a mobile from ribbons in the center of the room. I think someone knocked one of them down at some point in the evening. I must have talked to everyone else in the packed room, even those spilling out onto the stoop, before I worked up the nerve to go over and introduce myself. I came back a few days later to interview her. It felt sacred to be in her makeshift workspace. She pointed out pieces in process on the floor and when we sat down to interview she was easy to talk with and intentional in her answers. She was so welcoming and I regret how self conscious I was during the whole interaction. I felt like at any moment she would realize I was a fake with no experience or credibility. I left feeling like perhaps I had asked all the wrong questions. Only recently did I come back to the interview and recognize how beautifully candid it is. I genuinely hope Emma's art and the thoughts shared here help you in the way they've helped me.
So, what’s your name?
Emma. Kohlmann. Emma Kohlmann [Laughing]
Okay, that’s a good start. Do you mind sharing how old you are?
Where are you based out of?
Right now I’m based out of New York, but I’m usually based out of Western Massachusetts. I’ve been there for ten years.
Do you remember when you first started feeling out a personal style in your artwork?
I guess I’ve always worked with watercolor, even in high school. I have these memories of trying to articulate myself in my work. In high school I made really crazy big collages. My art teacher just let me go wild with whatever I wanted to do, which was very lucky. I think having someone who valued my creativity is one of the reasons why I’m still doing it. I kind of started loosely figuring out how I wanted to continue making art. And how I could do it anywhere and on the fly. I like having the ability to set up a studio in the middle of nowhere, like when I’m traveling or just to keep the momentum going.
Did you try a bunch of styles visually?
In high school it was more about learning how to draw. When I kind of figured out my drawing style was in college. I was working more abstractly and figuring out ways to portray the body without actually making the body. That’s how I got to this type of work that I’m doing now. It’s kind of abstract but it’s still figurative. Nobody really told me what to do or what to follow. I just wanted to do this.
Do you think that there are assumptions that other people make about you based on the stuff that you make? Your work?
Yeah. Some of it is overtly sexual and I’ve had interviews before where - especially, I don’t want to generalize, but with men - who have assumed the sexuality part is a way to insert myself or make myself..
It’s like your dark secret letting itself out in your art
Yeah, which isn’t the case. I’m trying to talk about sexuality or bring a conversation surrounding sexuality in my work that’s not like porn. It’s a more imaginative or more sacred, or genderless, or not having specific identity traits. I like thinking it’s more just about fooling around. Literally. But it’s kind of funny, because of that there’s assumptions that I am a hyper sexual person. I think it’s more that I’m trying to have a discussion. Or making a pathway to have these discussions. When people tell you or are literal about what things are, it loses that appeal in some ways to me. I love having an imaginary conversation with a piece but sometimes it is also interesting - if it’s really conceptual - to have little background. I just don’t like shoving ideas down people’s throats. It’s really important to me to not portray - I don’t like using flesh tones in my work because I don’t want people to assume that I’m talking about them. I especially don’t want to make it alienating for certain people.
Do you think that there is a time in your life when you grew a lot or where your art grew a lot?
I think after college. After college was a difficult time for me because I had all these realizations about what I wanted to study or what I wanted to be. I just didn’t feel like I used my time in college adequately. I had all these interests but I couldn’t figure out what I wanted. So after college I really immersed myself in remembering why I was into certain things. I was going to the library or creating lists of things I wanted to study, making photocopies of my favorite books. And then I made zines. And there was a music scene I was really into where I had the support of a community. My friends and I made a gallery in a storage space. We tried to keep ourselves active and our minds active. That was when I realized “Oh I can do this without school.” I think that’s what gave me the confidence to just continue.
What’s been your experience with taking on new or unfamiliar creative forms?
I really enjoy it. I’m not really afraid to do anything. Honestly, I just force myself to explore as much as I can. Nothing’s ever enough for me. I’m never satisfied with the work that I make so I’m always trying to branch out. But I think because I’m so transient right now I have to stick kind of to the same things. But I love dancing still. I love music. I sang in a band. I’m still kind of figuring it out, but I’m always trying to pursue new aspects or new avenues of creativity.
What does it feel like to share your work on social media vs. in person irl?
I feel like social media can be more democratic in a way. You don’t have to go to a gallery to see the work. You don’t have to look a certain way to see the work. And that to me is way more satisfying sometimes then having to cater to the art world, which is kind of impossible for some people. I feel like [the art world] is very directed in a way where the classes are visible. I mean it’s all about money. And it is all about money. So for me, I love using social media as a medium so I can play around and have a persona or have myself be a part of something. But in some ways I don’t really like social media because there is an egotistical aspect of it and people get so hung up on it. Sometimes it hurts people. I feel like it hurts certain people because they feel the emptiness.
Can you tell how your style has changed since your introduction to visual art, even since right after college and your senior year
I think it changed when I felt like I could use color. I was only working black and white in college and then I slowly went into color. I felt weird about it, because I wasn’t as intrigued by it. I loved using SUMI ink and I loved charcoal and I love just playing around with that kind of thing. And then I went to using red ink. I went to the whole spectrum and it really changed my perspective on how my own line drawing worked. It’s so funny thinking back on it because it feels like it’s intuitive.
What do you have to say about developing a trust in your own intuition.
Well, a lot of the work that I make is freehand. I have ideas when I paint but I kind of just let myself go for it and hope that I can achieve it. Sometimes it really doesn’t work, that’s why I work so much. I try to work in bulk. I try to make as many different variations of the same thing. The intuition part comes in because I trust my hand. And if it doesn’t work I have to try it again. Which is so corny but… I think the sharpness of certain aspects of my work - like the cuts that go in - are if I’m kind of just hoping. It’s like when my grandmother used to bake things. She was Catholic and she would do the cross. I’m not religious at all but I kind of say “I hope for the best!” If it doesn’t work it doesn’t work you know?
Now I’m imagining you doing the cross before every piece. When you were younger did you ever think this is where you’d be now?
No. No. I don’t think I could imagine that I would be making art. Not that my parents didn’t encourage me, it’s just I didn’t think I could do it as an occupation. It just seemed unobtainable. I feel truly grateful for experiences like the ones I have at this residency or when people invite me to collaborate. It feels like an honor every time I get asked because I’m like “Wow, people actually want to see the stuff I make!” It’s so weird. I feel humbled. I think it will always feel that way. And it’s just hopefully a beginning, or a launching point for me. Who knows if this is the only thing I will be doing ‘cause I don’t think people’s lives are like that, you know?
Can you describe a time when you felt powerful?
Sometimes I feel really powerful in my dreams. Sometimes I can control my dreams, or lucid dream. That’s something that’s really crazy to think about. I’m the type of person who really needs sleep to function. When I have these intense dreams I feel like I can change or manifest things that feel like a reality to me. Sometimes I feel like this way of manifesting things is kind of my own. How I deal with my life is just that I will work, but also hope for things and try to put goodness out into the world, and hopefully it’s returned. And that’s kind of how I feel about power.